'Lydia Lunch: The War Is Never Over': Film Review

Courtesy of Annie Sprinkle
A bracing reminder that sexual self-defense can take many forms.

No Wave filmmaker Beth B offers a portrait of her longtime collaborator, musician/provocateur Lydia Lunch.

From its first scene, Lydia Lunch: The War Is Never Over makes clear that its subject holds views on sexual politics that are dramatically out of sync with those considered allowable on social media. Speaking to the camera, Lunch recalls being 13, standing outside a porn theater while waiting for the bus. She accepted a ride from a stranger, who drove her to a remote spot and, at gunpoint, insisted that she lick his car's tires. Her conclusion? "At that point, I had the power."

Lunch's defiantly unfashionable sort of feminism is the main point of interest in this documentary, whose director Beth B has been around for many of the singer's provocations since the late 1970s. Ostensibly a music film, War Is Never Over does chronicle how Lunch made her name in the Downtown NYC scene with one band, Teenage Jesus and the Jerks, but quickly embarked on a series of musical reinventions. But viewers who don't already care about Lunch's music — of the bands immortalized on Brian Eno's essential No Wave compilation No New York, hers was the hardest to like — aren't likely to be turned into fans here. Instead, they'll marvel at a woman who, at 60, seems just as fierce as she was 40 years ago.

Drawing on films of early spoken word performances, the film establishes that Lunch (born Lydia Anne Koch) came from a dangerous home. Her father was "a petty criminal ... insane," and she recalls race riots breaking out directly in front of her Rochester, New York, house. By the time she hit Manhattan as a teenager — immediately going home with a stranger so she'd have a place to sleep — she was more than ready to digest the nihilism of bands who were too strange to be called punk.

While working on spoken-word material that would explore childhood traumas and attempt to transform them into something else, Lunch started that band with the memorably funny name. Sadly, co-founder James Chance is not interviewed here, but their bandmate Jim Sclavunos (now one of Nick Cave's Bad Seeds) is, and remembers the time well for more reasons than one: A virgin at the time, he says that "being deflowered by Lydia" was a prerequisite for joining the band.

"I am sex — I'm walking pornography," Lunch declares here. She recalls her teenage years, when she'd pick men up and steal from them while they weren't looking. Today, she sexually harasses male bandmates blatantly (not that they're offended); at one concert, she grabs the hand of a fan in the front row and sticks it up her skirt, offering proof of the effect singing a certain song had on her. "My language is not silence," she says at one point, and boy, is that the truth.

The director gives Lunch many opportunities to defend and/or make sense of her behavior. While seeming to dare viewers to take offense, the singer describes it in part as a means of claiming power over the abuse she has suffered. (Her father molested her, for one thing — an experience she recalls in graphic detail.) "I always knew I was in a cycle of abuse I wanted to end," Lunch says. If her means of balancing the scales isn't one most therapists would condone, she's also contrarian about the world's present-day take on abuse: In one bitter poem, she seems to condemn both lecherous movie producers and the actresses they stalk. Later, she clarifies, "I blame the parents of the victim ... the mothers."

Beth B (who has used Lunch as an actress since her early films with then-partner Scott B) is not interested in showing Lunch's abrasive attitudes in a flattering light, and her take-her-as-she-comes approach extends to the doc's account of musical metamorphosis. War Is Never Over listens as the singer rattles off many of the bands and literary projects she's undertaken, briefly explaining the purpose of each, but doesn't spend much time establishing that any one of them, individually, deserves a spot in counterculture history. Judging from the way she talks to some of the young fans who wind up at her shows these days, legacy doesn't seem to be Lunch's main concern.

Production company: B Productions
Director-producer-editor: Beth B
Executive producer: Amanda Kelso
Directors of photography: Peter Gordon, Beth B
Venue: Doc NYC
Sales: Submarine

77 minutes